I’m very happy to have my interview with veteran-author Mary “M.L.” Doyle appear in the latest issue of 0-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal published by the Veterans Writing Project. Getting to know Doyle and her work has been both enjoyable and illuminating. As the headnote to the interview explains, the uniqueness of Doyle’s perspectives and the variety of her titles are impressive. Both her personal background and her writing ventures—an African-American former Army sergeant first class who writes military crime fiction and military-themed urban romance/fantasy while co-authoring memoirs of prominent minority women-in-uniform—intrigued me greatly upon learning about them. Our interview fulfilled expectations that her thoughts about it all would be as interesting as the works themselves.
For readers interested in exploring Doyle’s books, I suggest starting with her military crime novel debut The Peacekeeper’s Photograph (2013). Set in Bosnia on an Army FOB in the 1990s, The Peacekeeper’s Photograph is the first of three “Master Sergeant Harper” mysteries Doyle has now authored. It features many elements relatively untouched by most contemporary war lit: not just Bosnia, but a female senior NCO’s perspective, command group treachery, soldier romance, Army racial dynamics, and the threat of rape faced by military women if captured. Readers might also try The Bonding Spell (2015), about a female Iraq War veteran who channels the spirit of an ancient Sumerian goddess after picking up a magical relic while deployed. I also recommend I’m Still Standing: From Captive US Soldier to Free Citizen (2011), Specialist Shoshana Johnson’s memoir that Doyle co-wrote. Johnson, if you will remember, was the African-American junior enlisted cook who was captured by Iraqi insurgents along with Jessica Lynch in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Considering Johnson’s view of war alongside that of not Lynch’s, but, say, ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette’s, as expressed in his memoir No Easy Day, which I also read recently, juxtaposes the diverse experiences of Americans who serve the nation in uniform–and all the advantages and rectitude do not necessarily accrue to sagas of white male combat-arms super-warriors. To be clear, I thought No Easy Day was fascinating and salute Bissonnette’s combat prowess, but I’m Still Standing, as does everything Doyle writes, demonstrates how the military is many people and many things.
The interview offers Doyle’s insights about all I’ve mentioned above and much else, to include her views on the rewards of independent publishing. Please read it and then seek out Doyle’s own remarkable body of work—really, start anywhere and you won’t go wrong.
A final note: As the Mentor Program Coordinator for the Veterans Writing Project, I’ve matched up some 30 aspiring veteran-writers with experienced authors and teachers in online mentoring relationships. We now need more mentors, so if you have time, inclination, and ability, I’d love to hear from you. The aspiring writers are wide-ranging in age and writing interests, but some basic splits are between male/female, Vietnam/Iraq-Afghanistan, and fiction/memoir/poetry/screenwriting, and I do my best to match veterans and mentors who will prove compatible. No military experience is required for mentors–just a capacity to teach and a desire to help. You can reach me at email@example.com.
…aren’t so lazy and hazy if you live in the New York City area, where the artistic and intellectual processing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affords almost too many events to absorb. The highlight of the summer is the staging in Saratoga Springs (180 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan) of an opera based on Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk. Castner probably didn’t see it coming, but in retrospect it’s not hard to recognize his memoir’s operatic potential. Castner’s record of his tours in Iraq as the head of an Air Force Explosives Ordnance Disposal detachment and his troubles readjusting to civilian life afterwards is fine in its particulars—in a perfect world it would be more popular than American Sniper. It’s got more harrowing combat scenes, for instance, as well as better descriptions of specialized military training and more honest, reflective, and generous portraits of how difficult redeployment can be. But what really elevates The Long Walk is Castner’s imagining of his life in terms of darker, larger, may I say mythic forces that imbue existence with cosmic significance. In particular, Castner describes what it means to be overcome by “The Crazy”—those oh-fuck moments after war when you realize just how screwed over combat and danger have made you, no matter how normal you appear or try to be. Castner’s richly-situated exploration of the larger-than-life forces that envelop him are I’m sure what inspired the opera producers Jeremy Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann.
More prosaic, but still exciting, war-lit readings are taking place within the city itself. Words After War impresarios Brandon Willitts and Matt Gallagher are sponsoring not one, but two series of readings. Monthly events at The Folly, a Greenwich Village bar partly owned by Gallagher, have featured local veteran and military-themed writers, such as Mariette Kalinowski, Kristin Rouse, and Jake Siegel, as well as civilian authors, reading unpublished and recently published work in an intimate setting. Words After War also co-sponsors a second set of readings, called Danger Close, in conjunction with New York University English professor Patrick Deer. Deer is part an academic consortium named the Cultures of War and Postwar Research Group and the author of Culture in Camouflage, a study of literature written in Britain during World War II, so it’s great that he has now turned his attention to contemporary American war writing while helping showcase its authors in intriguing pairings with compelling moderators. One Danger Close event featured Phil Zabriskie and Jesse Goolsby in conversation with Lea Carpenter, and a second had Myra Jacob hosting authorial collaborators Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson along with August Cole and P.W. Singer. And as if that weren’t enough, the energetic and innovative Willitts and Gallagher have announced a third event, a one-off called Writing War, to take place July 30 at the Brooklyn Historical Society and featuring Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, Sara Novic, and Maurice Decaul.
Words After War is by far not the only game in New York town, either. War author and Restrepo filmmaker Sebastian Junger, for example, has been hosting readings featuring veteran authors and war journalists at HIS bar-restaurant the Half-King and elsewhere in the city. Earlier in the summer, Arts in the Armed Forces, a vet-friendly organization founded by actor and ex-Marine Adam Driver, helped promote an off-Broadway play by Daniel Talbott titled Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait. Alex Mallory, who has staged at least two plays about war in Iraq with her troupe Poetic Theater, is back July 27 with a staged reading of her work There Are No Camels in Beirut, about conflict in that strife-torn city in 2006. Invitations to events and announcement of new programs by writing collectives such as Voices From War and the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop arrive weekly if not daily. And in the most out-of-the-blue way possible, I’ve been consulted by the event-designers of Gigantic Mechanic, a Brooklyn arts initiative currently developing an interactive theater experience called Hearts and Minds, which will allow audience members to role-play members of an infantry squad on patrol in Iraq. That’s not quite as cool as having an opera made of your life, but I’m flattered to have been asked for input.
So that’s New York for you, creatively and endlessly engaged and productive. I hope things are as busy and interesting as you want them to be wherever you are this summer.
I’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology of essays on American Sniper and have been working on my contribution the past few weeks. The project’s given me a chance to reread many of the reviews published upon the memoir’s and then the movie’s releases, and below I offer a list of some of the most pertinent ones. One subject of discussion has been whether Clint Eastwood’s movie version of American Sniper is faithful to Kyle’s memoir and if either the movie or the book fully and accurately relate the totality of Kyle’s life and service. Other reviews ask what is so “American” about Kyle and his brand of sniper-heroics. Still others question whether the movie glamorizes war generally or justifies specifically war in Iraq and glorifies the contributions of Navy SEALs to the American military effort. Some reviews take issue with the movie’s portrait of Iraqi civilians and combatants, while a final set discusses the memoir’s and film’s depiction of the potentially traumatic effects of combat and deployment.
Taken together, the memoir, the film, the reviews, and everything and everyone pertaining to their production and distribution, to include the thoughts of the real-life men and women portrayed, to include Kyle’s victims, constitute what Israeli photography critic Ariella Azoulay would call an interpretive “situation”: analysis of an artistically- and technologically-shaped representation of a real-world person or event that incorporates everything that has been said and could be said about both, in order to elicit the most detailed and just understanding of the moral, political, and aesthetic stakes involved. A tall order indeed–too tall for me here, but no doubt the American Sniper situation allows us to gain traction on at least two pertinent questions about the millennial wars:
What does it take for young Americans to kill in combat, what is it like to kill in combat, and what is it like to live afterwards?
What stories about war connect with audiences and why?
I’m writing my anthology contribution on the first question, so will hold my thoughts here, but am happy to take a swing at the question about American Sniper‘s astounding popularity. I think a lot of something Edgar Allan Poe wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1848. Speaking of Hawthorne’s short story collections in the years prior to writing The Scarlett Letter, Poe wrote, “But the simple truth is, that a writer who aims at impressing the people is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression. How far Mr. Hawthorne has addressed the people at all is, of course, not a question for me to decide. His books afford strong internal evidence of having been written to himself and his particular friends alone.”
That’s a fascinating statement. It suggests that if writers (and moviemakers) want to be popular, they have only themselves to blame if they aren’t. The subjects, themes, and styles that people like, Poe implies, are right there for the taking for he or she who will. I wonder how true that is? And if American Sniper‘s success means that contemporary war-story-tellers have finally hit the sweet spot of war-story popularity, I wonder what that bodes for war writing and war movie-making to come? As another critic of Poe’s time, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it when writing about American theater in Democracy in America (1835), “Authors soon discover the secret inclinations of public taste,” which suggests that the public’s inclinations don’t remain secret for very long. Chris Kyle’s co-authors were lawyer Scott McEwan and veteran writer of military thrillers Jim DeFelice, so we know he had experienced help shaping the material of his life so that it resonated with audiences. An even more telling statement comes from one of Kyle’s editors, Peter Hubbard, who is described in a New York Times article by Julie Bosman as saying that “he was determined to publish [American Sniper] for a general-interest reader, the kind of person who would pick up a big blockbuster thriller. ‘I didn’t want it to be characterized as a genre military book,’ he said. ‘It functions as a great action and adventure story.’” As is well-documted in many reviews below, Clint Eastwood and his screenwriter Jason Hall substantially altered Kyle’s memoir in ways that clearly tapped “the secret inclinations of public taste.” From an ethical-aesthetic perspective, the question is whether they did so according to their own sense of artistic integrity, cravenly, or both. You know what would be interesting? Another movie version of American Sniper, made by a filmmaker/screenwriter team with radically different ideas about Kyle and his memoir than had Eastwood and Hall. If that happened, we would definitely have a “situation” to consider.
My review of Colby Buzzell’s latest essay and magazine article collection Thank You for Being Expendable is up at The Bridge, a website dedicated to “Policy, Strategy, National Security, and Military Affairs,” as their Medium site explains. The Bridge has actually run three reviews of Buzzell’s latest, so let me salute my co-reviewers, a US Army officer who goes by the nom-de-plume Angry Staff Officer and a US Air Force officer named Blair Shaefer, both of whom turn many nice phrases. The ASO, for example, writing of the senior junior enlisted faction of the military known as “E4s,” who tend to be the most reliable indicator of unit morale, writes, “if there actually was an E-4 Mafia, Colby Buzzell would be the godfather.” Shaefer describes Thank You For Being Expendable the “punk rock alternative to Service Academy and/or Ivy League-educated military officer GWOT memoirs.” Like!
I connected with The Bridge managing editor Nathan K. Finney through my involvement with the Military Writer’s Guild. MWG has been around for a while as an organization comprised (mostly) of serving and veteran writers of the serious policy and strategy analysis persuasion, but it has lately reinvigorated its recruiting efforts and extended its reach to a few of us on the artistic side of things. I’m glad to be part of MWG and eager to see where it goes. Publishing on Medium and using Slack to handle internal business has already made me feel a good twenty years younger, so things are off to an excellent start, as I see them.
Colby Buzzell, Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences. Byliner, 2015.
A “turn-and-burn” military convoy travels from one base to another, executes its business quickly, and then immediately returns home; the mission doesn’t allow for socializing or enjoying the destination post’s amenities. In Afghanistan, turn-and-burns were bummers, because, after risking our lives on the roads to ambushes and IEDs, we felt like we deserved to relax a bit before doing so again. My trip to the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, or AWP15, held last weekend in Minneapolis, was a bit of a turn-and-burn for me, unfortunately, for I arrived Friday morning and by mid-Saturday afternoon I was already heading back to the airport. I packed in a lot in my 30 hours in Minnesota, but I also missed a few panels and chances for fun before my arrival and after my departure.
Minnesota, first time ever to the home of so many of my musical heroes! Dylan, Prince, the Replacements, Husker Dü, and even now the great Hold Steady, and where T.S. Eliot once spoke to 17,000 people in a hockey arena….
Musical and poetical rhapsodies aside, I wasn’t the only war writer who arrived in town possessed by a sense of purpose. For some, the urgency was born of dissatisfaction with the way war writing was represented at last year’s AWP14 in Seattle (though hopefully not with my panel there). Flashes of War author Katey Schultz, for example, explained that she left AWP14 feeling that civilian voices on war had been neglected.Siobhan Fallon wrote that she was glad to see so many women featured on war lit panels. Taking matters in his own hands, Benjamin Busch recruited an all-star line-up of war authors—Schultz, Fallon, Brian Turner, and Phil Klay—for a panel titled “Telling Our New War Stories: Witness and Imagination across Literary Genres.” Determined not to waste a second, Busch dispensed with author readings and and allowed for only a truncated audience Q&A. Instead, Busch himself interviewed the panelists, asking damn good questions about war-writing craft and politics that elicited thoughtful, thorough responses. For my part, knowing that I wouldn’t be on the ground long, I invited every war writer and scene-supporter I knew to dinner Friday night. It was a somewhat desperate ploy for company, but one that saved me from my usual conference fate—eating alone at McDonalds–so thank you everyone who came.
My speaking role at AWP15 was moderating a panel titled “Who Can’t Handle the Truth? Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans,” featuring Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran. I contributed ten minutes of editorial overview, all which proved totally superfluous given the power of the readings and commentary that followed. Capps, Williams, and Halloran are each fully at home behind the podium, and any one of them could have commanded the audience’s attention for an hour. Their readings recounted harrowing moments during deployment and afterwards; war, military service, and life afterwards have not been easy for Capps, Williams, and Halloran, and their memoirs unflinchingly portray events that made it so and the pain and turmoil that ensued. As I listened, the sense that I got from their books that they had been pretty damn good (conscientious, competent, and energetic) soldiers in uniform was reinforced, and I wondered about the difference between the squared-away soldierly performances and the unraveling of the personal lives—as if a mil-civ divide within had chewed them up and made their lives a tumult. Capps, Williams, and Halloran used the “T-word”—trauma—directly, but sparingly, as if mindful that the word has become an 800-pound IED in rooms where veterans and veterans writing are discussed. Speaking of PTSD, for example, Capps said, “You can control it, but you can’t hope to cure it.” Their readings made clear, however, that their service had been traumatic and that writing about it played a therapeutic, or at least an important part, in their restoration to healthy and productive happiness. The mesmerized audience had plenty of questions, so I didn’t ask the one I prepared:
“18th-century English author Samuel Johnson wrote that ‘no one ever regrets serving as a soldier or sailor.’ In your mind is that statement wisdom or foolishness, either generally or personally? To the extent that you might regret serving, was it war or military culture that did the most damage? To the extent that you do not, what got you through the hardest part—writing, medication, therapy, love, friends, time, or something else?”
Another panel, titled “Writing as Therapy for War: Developing Stories and Poems with Witnesses and Soldiers,” unabashedly promoted the use of writing as rehabilitative for individuals brutalized by war, as a means of documenting injustice, and as a means of expressing outrage to powers-that-be. Poet, playwright, and essayist Maurice Decaul, head of a New York University veterans writer collective, said that for the collective’s members “writing was not meant to be therapeutic, but it often was.” The new director of Military Experience and the Arts website, David Ervin, an Iraq veteran, spoke openly about how his road to recovery from being “pretty messed up” owed much to writing. Olivia Cerrone, part of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, described how writing gave voice to Afghan women repressed by their own culture and damaged by war, while Elena Bell said much the same on behalf of Palestinian women in Israel.
Ben Busch’s questions for his all-killer, no-filler line-up of authors focused on large issues of political implication and writerly issues of craft. Brian Turner spoke of “complicity”—his effort to imbricate civilian reading audiences in the circle of responsibility for the damage done by war. Siobhan Fallon explained that part of her motivation in writing You Know When the Men Are Gone was her sense that the American public knew little about the war experience that soldiers and their families were enduring. Phil Klay said that he began to write after returning from Iraq and asking himself, “What the hell was that all about?” Katey Schultz reported that she began to write about war when she noticed how language had begun to grow distorted and then change in the years after 9/11. “A story begins with an unanswered question, and I had a lot,” she said. Turning to issues of craft, she said, “It took me a year to get the uniforms and equipment right and another year to figure out who called who ‘sir’ and then six more months to make the characters come alive.” On a roll, Schultz explained that there are many ways to write authentically about war besides personal witness and first-hand experience. Empathy and research are great teachers, too, she said, and spoke of how Google and YouTube aided her while writing Flashes of War. All the panelists had great anecdotes about the importance of research in bringing not just realistic detail but life to their stories. Turner spoke of reading late at night about a butterfly unique to Bougainville that then became a detail in a passage in My Life as a Foreign Country about his grandfather who fought there. Fallon described asking her husband to send her examples of soldier port-a-john graffiti, which he did, but that she eventually had to make up her own to create the perfect effect in a story. Klay described trying to attain a “thick knowledge” (anthropologist Clifford Geertz reference!) that allowed him to be comfortable “making things up and knowing it’s not bullshit.” Exactly what model of PVS-4 Night Vision Goggles did the Marines use in 2004 anyway? It matters, said Klay, along with a lot of other things that matter. But each knew the limits of journalistic-like quest for verisimilitude, too. Busch quoted Ron Capps to the effect that, “We can all get the facts. It’s what you do with them afterwards.”
On the subject of trauma, though, the authors’ remarks minimized the references that were everywhere in the “Writing as Therapy for War” panel, and they turned to the topic directly only as the panel came to a close. Klay, for example, asserted that war writers should be on guard to avoid “flattening the story into trauma,” an idea echoed by Busch, who asked if we might be encouraging veterans to repeatedly tell a certain kind of story when they speak or write of war. Writing, or life, the sentiment seemed to be, need not be defined by all-abiding concern with suffering focalized through the experience of individual soldiers or non-combatants. I’m sure the panelists are sympathetic to the “Writing as Therapy for War” panelists’ goals–they would probably say they are working for the same thing–and it’s also obvious that the characters in their own stories, poems, and memoirs have been severely rattled by war. But rather than relying on trauma tropes, the authors expressed interest in thinking expansively about what war writing can do and be; even in time of war military service is not only about pain and outrage–and if it is, the subjects can be approached from a variety of directions and perspectives. “Widen the palette,” Turner urged war writers, “use more of the imagination.”
So, turning and burning, war writing unfolds upon itself, revealing new problems and possibilities, proceeding in different registers, with varying points-of-view, goals, and subjects of emphasis. A view of things clear-cut to one or many may be problematic or uninteresting to others. Interestingly, the non-war lit panels I attended wrestled with many of the same issues pestering the war writing community. Judging by the titles alone makes the case: “Blood Will Out: Putting Violence on the Page.” “The Politics of Empathy: Writing Through Borrowed Eyes.” “Writing Atrocity: The Novel and Memoir of Political Witness.” How sensationally or how subtly should an author describe graphic violence? What are the problems associated with white men and women portraying dark-skinned characters? Has a war novel other than Sand Queen portrayed the indiscriminate killing, torture, drone strikes, soldier misconduct, and general officer maleficence that are unfortunately-but-undeniably now part of the American way-of-war? I didn’t know the authors on these panels, but was surprised at many turns about the relevance of their comments to war writing, and I’ll be seeding upcoming posts with their ideas.
A blog post about AWP15 war lit panels by Christopher Meeks is here.
A blog post about AWP15 by Andria Williams of the Military Spouse Book Review is here.
A blog post about AWP15, racism, and violence by Vanessa Martir is here.
Thank you to my fellow panelists Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran. I’m humbled by your eloquence and bravery and honored by your friendship.
Introductory Remarks, “Who Can’t Handle the Truth: Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans”
The American Civil War, in my understanding of things, was the first war to generate a subsequent “battle of the memoirs” in which Union and Confederate generals entertained readers with first-hand accounts of battlefield exploits and decisions, while also serving as correctives to other accounts, all the while cajoling for their places in history.
After subsequent wars, such as World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, memoirs written by generals and statesmen were also common, but they were joined and even supplanted in public interest by accounts written by veterans far farther down the chain-of-command than the vaunted army commanders of the North and South. We value the private soldier’s memoir, we seem to feel, because we think his, and now hers, recollections speak most truthfully to what it means to serve in combat and within a military culture that seems so increasingly foreign to civilian and peacetime life.
We honor these personal testimonies because we see in them an honesty and authenticity about war that we are not likely to get from journalism and history. We enjoy these sagas because we respect the impulse to document war and suspect that memoir writers use the power of memory and language not just to tell us about places and events that are thrilling and exotic, but to remind us that war is a brutal experience—one that requires careful retrospective handling by its participants to assess the exact nature of its horror and aid the memoir writer’s transition to effective, contributing member of the society that sent him or her off to war.
Perhaps the most striking memoir of the kind I have in mind was J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. First published in 1959, 14 years after Gray returned from four years of combat in Europe to become a professor of philosophy, The Warriors contains many insightful formulations about what a memoir written by a veteran might be and do. Glenn writes from his position as a university teacher in 1959: “Now it is almost as though [the war] never took place.” But he immediately reverses that sentiment, in the next line stating, “Yet something is wrong, dreadfully wrong.” Tempted by the impulse to forget, he fights back, for he knows that forgetting is not just a cop-out, but ultimately impossible. “What protrudes and does not fit in our pasts rises to haunt us and makes us spiritually unwell in the present,” he writes, and commits himself to the act of remembering. Noting that “war compresses the greatest opposites into the smallest space and the shortest time,” he feels a personal and social obligation to not to “continue to forget.” Gray writes, “The deepest fear of my war years, one still with me, is that these happenings had no real purpose.” If the effort to remember through writing did not have “some positive significance for my future life,” Gray concludes, “it could not possibly be worth the pain it cost” [to either live through the experience or write about it afterwards].
Today, we have a chance to take stock of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memoir by listening to three notable authors of the genre. Each of our readers has explored not just what it means to go to war, and be in war, but to return from war and live healthily and happily afterwards. The journey for each has not been easy, and I salute them for the toughness they displayed in confronting challenging episodes in their lives and then the candor, insight, and sense of perspective revealed in their writing. I know from my own experience writing about war and its aftermath that such tasks are not easy—it means being honest with oneself and taking risk in revealing the full dimensions of one’s struggles with reading audiences. I’m honored to be the host and moderator for this panel and eager to hear what they intend to share with us.
Our first reader is Ron Capps, a retired Army and State Department veteran who currently is director of the Veterans Writing Project, a Washington, DC-based organization with national reach that promotes veteran writing through workshops and its publication 0-Dark-Thirty. The wars of the 21st century were fought by members of the millennial generation, a group of young men and women notorious for their disrespect or obliviousness to age and precedence. But Ron Capps has been at the military and war fighting business for a long time, and his memoir Seriously Not All Right (2014) documents not just his experience as an officer-in-uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a longer pre-history as a State Department official on-the-ground for extensive periods in Kosovo and Africa. It is this larger, broader, longer view that I think distinguishes Capp’s perspective.
Our second panelist, Kayla Williams, has written two memoirs about her service in Iraq and afterwards. Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2006) came very early in the game and immediately staked out a position as an insightful, almost definitive articulation of what it means to be a woman in uniform, in the 21st century, during not just war but a period of intense reformulation of our ideas not just about women-in-uniform but gender and sexuality in our society at large. To my mind, no one more than Kayla has spoken as frankly about these issues as they pertain to the military that took men and women for the first time in significant numbers together overseas to fight and when not fighting co-exist together. Kayla has also published a second memoir, Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014) that is equally candid and insightful about the rocky road of marriage she and her husband Brian, who was seriously injured in war, have traveled together since first meeting on a remote hilltop in Iraq.
While Ron Capps represents age on our panel and Kayla Williams signifies what is strikingly new about contemporary war and war authorship, our third panelist, Colin D. Halloran, embodies a much more traditional authorial position—that of a young, literary, middle-class male—Colin was 19 when he deployed to Afghanistan as any infantryman—with no particular inclination or aptitude for soldiering before he joined “to see war” and “serve his country.” Colin turned to poetry to portray vividly the physical experience and even more intensely the emotional experience of combat, service, and life afterwards. His Shortly Thereafter (2012), a memoir that combines verse and prose, is not just one of the very few instances of poetry written by an Afghanistan veteran, but is one of the few biographies of war written by a young enlisted soldier—a doubly-curious phenomenon given the library shelves full of memoirs written by former officers and Navy SEALS. A few years older now, Colin teaches writing at Fairfield University in Connecticut. But Colin, as I know him, will be the last to ever forget where he came from and is currently at work at both another volume of poetry and a memoir that addresses his war years using the arguably more direct medium of prose.
Thanks to Roy Scranton for turning me on to J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors.
Yea for Minnesota, so below’s a special video insertion, the Hold Steady’s ode to the Minneapolis punk-rock scene, “Stay Positive”:
Below I’ve catalogued memoirs, imaginative literature, and big-budget films published or released through the end of 2014 that represent important and interesting takes on America’s twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lists are subjective and idiosyncratic, not complete or authoritative. Still, they might help all interested in the subject to more clearly and widely view the fields of contemporary war literature and film. I’ve arranged the lists chronologically and within each year alphabetically by author or director. If I’ve misspelled a name or title, gotten a date wrong, or omitted a work you think important, please let me know and we’ll make the list better.
If the author or director has served in the US military, or is the spouse of a veteran, I have annotated the branch of service in parentheses.
The lists of “Important Precursor” texts and films represent works that I think are well known and influential among today’s war artists. A list of stage, dance, and performance war art is forthcoming.
Important Precursor Texts:
Michael Herr: Dispatches (1978)
Tim O’Brien (Army): The Things They Carried (1990)
Yusef Komunyakaa (Army): Neon Vernacular (1993)
Anthony Swofford (USMC): Jarhead (2003)
Important Precursor Films:
Oliver Stone (Army), director: Platoon (1986)
Stanley Kubrick, director: Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Ridley Scott, director: Blackhawk Down (2001)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse): You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict: Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army): Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army): The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (2012)
Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter: Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton: What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum: They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson: Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith): The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz: Flashes of War (2013) Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Greg Baxter: The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn: Wynne’s War (2014)
Kara Hoffman: Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC): Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC): Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC): Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Juliana Spahr: This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army): Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse): Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse): Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army): Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF): Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army): Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse): Wife and War (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army): Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Contemporary Memoir, Blog-writing, and Reportage:
Colby Buzzell (Army): My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005)
Kayla Williams (Army): Love My Rifle More Than I Love You: Young & Female in the U.S. Army (2006)
Nathaniel Fink (USMC): One Bullet Away (2006)
Marcus Luttrell (Navy) and Patrick Robinson: Lone Survivor (2007)
Peter Monsoor (Army): A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq (2008)
Craig Mullaney (Army): The Unforgiving Minute (2009)
Matt Gallagher (Army): Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (2010)
Benjamin Tupper (Army): Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo (2011)
James Wilhite (Army): We Answered the Call: Building the Crown Jewel of Afghanistan (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): Dust to Dust (2012)
Brian Castner (Air Force): The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows (2012)
Sean Parnell (Army): Outlaw Platoon (2012)
Ron Capps (Army): Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years (2013)
Stanley McChrystal (Army): My Share of the Task (2013)
Adrian Bonenburger (Army): Afghan Post: One Soldier’s Correspondence from America’s Forgotten War (2014)
Jennifer Percy: Demon Camp (2014)
Brian Turner (Army): My Life as a Foreign Country (2014)
Sebastian Junger: War (2010) and Tim Hetherington and Infidel (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): The Art in War (2010)
Michael Kamber: Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (2013)
Kathryn Bigelow, director: The Hurt Locker (2008)
Sebastian Junger, director: Restrepo (2009)
Oren Moverman, director: The Messenger (2009)
Kathryn Bigelow, director: Zero-Dark-Thirty (2012)
Peter Berg, director: Lone Survivor (2013)
Sebastian Junger, director: Korengal (2014)
Claudia Myers, director: Fort Bliss (2014)
Elizabeth Samet: Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007)
Stacey Peebles: Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011)
Elizabeth Samet: No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014)
A caveat up-front is that my lists do not reflect hundreds of stories, poems, and photographs published individually in anthologies, magazines, and on the web. Some of my favorite stories, by authors such as Mariette Kalinowski, Maurice Decaul, Will Mackin, and Brian Van Reet, and photographs, such as the one by Bill Putnam published here, thus do not appear above, though I hope to post more comprehensive lists in the future.
Another deficiency is the lack of works by international authors and filmmakers, particularly Iraqi and Afghan artists. Again, that project awaits completion.
My list of memoirs is probably the most subjective. The works I’ve listed are those I think important historically or interesting to me personally, with a small nod toward providing a variety of perspectives. The small number of photography texts I’ve listed combine evocative pictures taken at war and on the homefront with insightful commentary written by the photographers and collaborators themselves.
I’m curious why there haven’t been more post-9/11 war novels written from the perspective of a wife and that portray marriage and family life in the period after redeployment. Have we seen any? Siobhan Fallon’s collection of short stories You Know When the Men are Gone, when it appeared in 2011, seemed to announce that marital tension wrought by war would be THE subject most attractive to talented war writers and alert readers. And yet, since then, not so much of anything, really. A story here and there. Some poetry. But no long fiction, from Fallon or anyone else.
Maybe the options for portraying martial domestic life are limited. A chirpy story of foibles on the family homefront while Daddy’s off killing Taliban and Al Qaeda bad guys followed by a happy family trip to Disneyland seems neither serious nor dramatic enough, you know what I mean? A failure of imagination might also be involved. Perhaps, though, it just takes guts to depict the guts of marital strain. The blogosphere is full of writing by savvy wives of deployed service members. Writers such as Andria Williams and Angie Ricketts I’m sure don’t miss much, and their posts give the impression that they could say a lot more even than they do about military married life. But as wives of officers, they, perhaps, are bound by the same chin-up, perpetually optimistic codes of propriety that bind their husbands, and that might be what keeps them from telling all the stories, even in fictional form, that they might. I know it’s true for me, still an active-duty officer, as I think about writing short stories and novels. A little too much interest in keeping up appearances, which sometimes earns officers the accusation that they “are not real people,” is even more toxic for a would-be writer of fiction. You’ve got to put it out there, and you can’t be afraid when it gets a little messy.
An interesting twist on this line-of-inquiry is afforded by Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War. Subtitled “the memoir,” it more accurately is a memoir-in-verse, as Flynn has spaced out her sentences and paragraphs a few to a page in a way that resembles long-line poetry and mixed these passages with more conventional snippets of lyric verse. Most of the lyric passages refer to the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, which Flynn witnessed. An example reads:
But what I didn’t know then is what marriage is like, how it is a net, like the tulle of my wedding dress. How it is.
The wire mesh, found inside a wall,
Found out on a street, after a building falls down.
How it entangles you, and how hard it is to walk away.
Flynn has lived through a lot more than just the horrifying experience of being present at Ground Zero. An equally traumatizing event from childhood, a miscarriage (or two?), and a rocky patch in her relationship with her Navy officer husband following his deployment all make their way into Wife and War’s 400+ pages. My interest here though is not Flynn’s life but her choice of poetry to tell her story. Long narrative poems haven’t been in literary fashion since the first half of the nineteenth century, but I can understand their appeal to contemporary writers looking for a means of expression more starkly stated than diffusely explained while still being more suggestive than explicit. The modus of Wife and War is to render a striking scene, event, or image minimalistically and then hint at rather than explore and analyze the cluster of emotions, perspectives, and implications that might accrue to it. For example, on one page:
I am still awake, in this new house, our bed, and my husband’s arm, crossing over my chest, like a deadbolt.
And I think about the mechanism of a lock. The safety on the M4 my husband carried for one year in Afghanistan,locked but ready.Or the way we sleep, too often, now, now that he is home, how we sleep, together, in our bed, but locked on opposite sides. Or our hearts, that organ we assign too much to, or maybe, not enough, locked inside of our rib cages.
That’s good, plenty good enough as is for most. But there’s also a lot of white space left on the page that might be used to fill in details, provide context, sketch in character (and more characters), explain a little more, if not better, in either fact or fiction. Kudos to Flynn for thinking how the resources of literature might be brought to bear on one’s personal narrative, kudos to her for letting us see the shape that marriage to a service member might take. Wife and War’s amalgam of memoir and verse probably won’t inaugurate a new public affection for narrative poetry, but it does bravely beckon other war writers to give the spaces inside a military marriage–its guts–the attention they deserve.
“I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me, over the curvature of the earth, over the glens of Antrim and the Dalmation coastline, the shells of Dubrovnik and Brcko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love.”
So begins Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, a start that just barely illuminates the the work’s enigmatic title and strange epigram taken from Eugenio Montale: “Too many lives go into the making of just one.” Half-memoir and half-rumination on the cosmology of soldiering and combat, My Life as a Foreign Country blends crystal-clear accounts of Turner’s upbringing in California and service in the Army with historical digressions, hallucinatory alterations of the here-and-now, and imagined vignettes describing the lives and thoughts of a cast of characters ranging from Iraqi bomb-makers to Japanese kamikaze pilots. It’s a lot to absorb, and matters are not helped by the subdivision of the book into 11 unnamed chapters further broken into 136 smaller sections, titled only by numbers, ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages. There’s kinda-sorta a logical narrative progression from chapter to chapter and within each chapter, but the trail is faint and easily lost, especially on the first reading. For sure there’s work to be done trying to explain the literal progression of Turner’s narrative, for those who like their readings literal, but clearly My Life as a Foreign Country is meant more to be experienced than explained. Even so, I’ll offer a few general comments about Turner’s methodology and vision.
Readers familiar with Turner’s poetry in Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise will recognize some subjects and themes treated in those volumes, such as car bombs, nighttime raids, soldier suicides, and life within a squad and on a FOB. The turn to prose sacrifices the preciseness, conciseness, and suggestiveness of the poetry in favor of a more expansive treatment of this familiar material that allows for more dialogue, description, characterization, and reflection. Turner can be as terse as Hemingway in parts, but his natural bent is to let his sentences flow with the momentousness of what they are describing. An example from one of the most moving chapters in the book, in my opinion, describes the thoughts of a young Iraqi male as he floats along the Tigris looking for a place to fire a mortar at American forces:
And Malik leans into the rowing, fascinated by the machine of his body, how the muscles of his arms take to the task of rowing so that the separation of body and oar become a fiction, Malik closing his eyes to subtract the night sounds of the world around him, until all that exists are the blades of their oars slipping into the water, two brothers in unison, propelling the boat forward with such ease he thinks they could just keep rowing, hour after hour, down through Baghdad and beyond, through sunrise and sunfall until they reached the wide mouth of the sea, the lights of Basra glowing behind them as they rowed into the crests and hollows of the Persian Gulf, Malik standing high at stern and calling out into the salt spray, calling to the adventurers who traveled these waters before him, the adventurers to come, saying, “’I’m here, world—Malik, as alive as anyone who has ever lived. Malik.’
The most stunning passage in the book, by far, is a reworking of a Rick Moody poem called “Boys.” Rendered in prose form by Turner and given the prosaic chapter title name of 49, we can do better by calling it by its first line: “The soldiers enter the house.” What follows is four pages of insanely intense and vivid and evocative description of the lives and thoughts of soldiers conducting a midnight raid on a compound belonging to a scared Iraqi family. A small quote won’t do it justice, but even a snippet such as, “The soldiers enter the house with only nine credits earned toward an associate’s degree in history from the University of Maryland. They kick in the door and enter the house with the memory of backyard barbecues on their minds” displays Turner’s gift with words and, even better, his ability to see poetic potential in mundane facts. The passage is incantatory even when read silently, and is even more so when read aloud, as I have heard Turner do so in performance.
My Life as a Foreign Country decidedly departs the time-space continuum in its later stages when Turner straight-facedly describes an RPG hit that kills him: “Sgt. Turner is dead,” he writes. The author-Turner is not dead, of course, but the imagined death, I’m thinking, bespeaks the author-Turner’s desire, at long last, to put his identity as a soldier behind him, a problematic venture given that it is his identity as a warrior that has inspired his poetry and gained him a paying audience. But noticeably absent in a memoir by an accomplished author are extended descriptions of Turner’s writerly development before joining the military, while in, and afterwards. To parse the book’s title, then, we can say that the “foreign country” he speaks of are the parts of his life—boyhood and a short period in adulthood—when he was consumed by soldiering, not art. The two clearly have never not been connected for Turner, but My Life as a Foreign Country foregrounds contemplation of the first, while leaving his literary life for another day.
Too bad, a little, because Turner fascinates in person when he speaks about the genesis of his poems and poetic craft. Those aren’t the fish he’s frying in My Life as a Foreign Country, but I’ve learned that Turner often bases poems on deep private allegiances to other poems he knows and loves, as the passage quoted above draws on Rick Moody’s “Boys.” I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the precursor text for My Life as a Foreign Country is Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We see the similarity in the unnumbered stanzas, we see it in the shared interest in cosmic connectivity, we see it in the brooding preoccupation with death and the swirls of mortality that buffet our lives. Whitman kills off his poetic persona, too, at the end of “Song of Myself,” only to promise the reader that he has been resurrected in different form: “I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags / I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”
Whitman concludes, “Failing to fetch me at first keep up encouraged / Missing me one place search another / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” I can’t state exactly what Sergeant Turner is up to at the end of My Life as a Foreign Country, but since I know him not just as a gruff former NCO but also as a sweet soul who cares deeply, I’m not surprised to read very near the book’s conclusion that, “because Sgt. Turner is dead, he will remain at his post.” Like Whitman at the end of his own long poem, Turner is somewhere ahead looking out for us while we scramble to catch up.
Brian Turner, My Life as a Foreign Country. Norton, 2014. I read an early draft of My Life as a Foreign Country and am honored to be mentioned in the acknowledgements.
I draw a line between remembrance and imagination, so I don’t review many memoirs on Time Now. I’m interested in the artistic representation of war more than its factual rendition, and I don’t want to be lured into judging someone’s life or disputing a soldier’s understanding of what he or she lived through. Plus, there’s just a whole heck of a lot of memoirs out there, and not so many stories, and I think writing a great story is more of an achievement than writing a great memoir. I make exceptions, though, when a memoir strives for interesting literary effect or manifests something I think important. I was impressed by Colby Buzzell’s My War, for instance. Not only did it begin life as an early-on warzone blog, Buzzell’s prose voice is exhilarating. Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War likewise originated as Internet dispatches from the Iraq front and then played hide-and-seek with military authority before finding print upon Gallagher’s discharge from the Army. Walt Piatt’s Paktika and Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War are memoirs in verse. Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust is by far the most highly wrought contemporary war memoir, as befits a book by the son of the fine novelist Frederick Busch. In aNew Yorker article titled “Home Fires,” George Packer writes that Dust to Dust is “organized not chronologically but around certain materials—metal, bone, blood, ash. Fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently.”
Last week I moderated a reading titled Writers on War at The Strand Bookstore in New York City. The event honored the publication of Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post, an epistolary memoir comprised of letters and journal entries Bonenberger mostly composed while undergoing infantry officer training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and on two tours in Afghanistan. Also on the panel were David Abrams, Roxana Robinson, the authors of the novels Fobbit and Sparta respectively, and the aforementioned Matt Gallagher. Abrams has written entertainingly about the event on his blog The Quivering Pen and also linked to some funny cartoonsof us drawn by a member of the audience named Jess Ruliffson. I can’t top Abrams and Ruliffson, but will say just a few words about Afghan Post.
Bonenberger is a Yale graduate whose parents are members of the artistic intelligentsia, which makes his military service de facto interesting–one more data point in liberal, educated America’s sorting out of its relationship with a nation that is a lot more militaristic than it is. That Bonenberger was a compulsive letter writer who somehow found the means to save or retrieve his correspondence is also intriguing. The best things about Afghan Post, though, are the quality of Bonenberger’s writing and his observations, both those descriptive and those reflective. Describing the things he sees and does, ruminating about bigger pictures, and cogitating upon his performance as a platoon leader and company commander, Bonenberger makes new many already twice-told warfaring episodes while filling in cracks and margins untouched by other memoirs and histories. An excerpt, for example, from a letter to his parents:
The Afghans live in unimaginable poverty; if you haven’t seen it, you can’t picture what it’s like. Mom, I’m guessing it’s even worse than whatever you saw on the Navajo reservation in the ‘70s. Except replace “alcoholism” with “the ever-present specter of warfare” as the proximate cause of said poverty (I’m trying to be generous and not suggest anything else could be responsible lest others accuse me of cultural imperialism). Walking through the market recently with a dismounted patrol, we passed a butcher’s shop, where they had skinned goats hanging—you could see the cloud of flies around the meat—the butcher’s assistant slapped the corpse to keep the flies off when a customer walked in. That afternoon I had kabob with the mayor—probably the same goat. There’s a medicine here, Cipro, that I take like candy to keep the pathogens away. God only knows what it’s doing to my insides.
Our anti-malarial medicine is Mefloquin, which is a weekly pill (we all take it on Monday, which is called “Mefloquin Monday” as a consequence) that causes some seriously weird, super-realistic dreams. I look forward to taking it; the dreams fade in intensity as the week goes on, but Monday and Tuesday night are usually fun, almost spiritual journeys. I had one dream that was so much like reality that when I woke up, I wondered if I’d been to sleep at all, or if I’d just remembered the day before and not dreamt at all—then I thought, “Ah, this what they mean when they say ‘having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality.’” Although when fantasy is exactly like reality, that’s not much of a problem.
The primary recipients of Bonenberger’s correspondence vary greatly—parents, girlfriends, old Yale friends, new Army buddies, etc.–so each is a separate exercise in rhetorical selection and emphasis. Who needs to hear what and why? As the letters accumulate, drama ensues as the author’s relationships torque under the pressure of change and need. The private side the letters reveal is often playful, open, and curious, but also prone to fits of brooding. The dominant impression is that of a young man living through very challenging and exciting events who is both eager to explain it all and desperate for affirmation that family and old friends don’t disapprove of his decisions to join the Army. The letters, it seems, allow Bonenberger, who never intended to stay in, to maintain distance from the all-consuming martial culture he has entered. At the same time, they document the powerful imperatives that drive young officers to fanatically seek the respect of their soldiers, peers, and superiors. The negotiation between distance and immersion imbues Afghan Post with personality and tension that other memoirs sometimes lack.
Afghan Post might be read usefully alongside Outlaw Platoon, Sean Parnell’s memoir of service as a platoon leader in Paktika province, Afghanistan, where much of Afghan Post also takes place. Parnell’s memoir swaggers with portraits of soldiers, Afghans, tactics, fighting, and Parnell’s growing prowess as a combat leader; Afghan Post’s strengths are passages that depict honestly Bonenberger’s internal struggle with doubt and failure. While we’re reading Parnell and Bonenberger we might also read Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute, about the author’s own platoon leader experience in Paktika and Walt Piatt’s memoir-in-verse mentioned above, about his tenure as a battalion commander there. Something about that wild, far-away battleground, full of mountains and angry Pashtuns, is inspiring America’s fighting men to write very well.
Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post: One Soldier’s Correspondence from America’s Forgotten War was published in 2014 by The Head and The Hand Press.
One aspect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not generally understood is how dependent were American and other Western forces on the services of native interpreters to mediate virtually every interaction with host-nation military personnel and civilians. Given the lack of Arabic, Dari, and Pashto speakers actually in the military and the paucity of bilingual speakers in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can assume that anything you might have read about in the papers that involved on-the-ground operations, and the millions of missions and engagements you didn’t, took place with a native speaker translator at the side of the officer or NCO charged with carrying them out. Though some interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan were American citizens or residents recruited in America and then deployed back to their homelands, most were natives. The fullest portrait of a host-nation interpreter and a US military member I know of appears in Sean Parnell’s Outlaw Platoon (2012), a memoir about Parnell’s service as an infantry platoon leader in Paktika province, Afghanistan. Parnell uses anecdotes about his interpreters, one, named Abdul, faithful and competent, the other, Yusef, untrustworthy and treacherous, to frame his account. “A good ‘terp,’” writes Parnell, “could make a huge difference in daily operations.”
“Terp” was the commonly used shorthand to describe military linguists. I never really liked the term, but it was ubiquitous and even I would use it to describe “Terp Village,” the humble compounds affixed to US bases in which a unit’s interpreters lived. The term appears again in a passage found in journalist-historian Bing West’s The Wrong War (2011). West, describing operations in southern Afghanistan, writes, “The interpreters were the funnel for all coalition interactions with Afghans at all levels.” Then, describing an interpreter named Siad, West continues: “Siad was typical of the local interpreters. They all tried hard, and most worshipped the grunts they served locally. Their thirst for absorbing American culture never ceased… Their skills were marginal, no matter how hard they tried. Their hearts were huge. Anyone who doubted the magical image of America in the minds of millions of Afghans had only to spend a day under fire with a U.S. squad and the local terp.”
Before examining fictional representations of interpreters, I’ll post a passage from a private document written by a former interpreter of mine who is now applying for admission to the US. It offers insight into the lived life of the men described abstractly so far:
I am engaged now and my fiancé is from Ghazni province. All her relatives know that I am working with Coalition Forces as a linguist. For that reason, I cannot go to Ghazni province now to see her or relatives or take part in a condolence or happiness party. Since I know that everybody knows that I am working with Coalition Forces I do not feel free and I am sure my life is at risk. Even in Kabul City where I live, I cannot go out at night and visit other people because I am very afraid my life is at risk.
War fiction writers have begun to make something of the possibilities offered by these complex figures and intense soldier-local national relationships. Their portraits do what fiction does: combine artistic creativity with realistic verisimilitude to provide social, psychological, and emotional nuance. They might be said, however, to focus on dramatic aspects where the day to day record is more placid or positive. The first depiction of which I am aware is in a Siobhan Fallon short story “Camp Liberty,” from her collection You Know When the Men are Gone (2011). In this story, Fallon tells of a soldier deployed to Iraq, named David, whose romantic relationship with Marissa, his stateside fiancé, fades as the working one with Raneen, a female interpreter, intensifies. David grows enamored of Raneen, but she disappears and is probably killed before he is able to speak to her in anything but an on-the-job context. Her disappearance leaves him more adrift than he imagined possible, and perhaps now too estranged from Marissa for that to ever be right again. Fallon puts a romantic spin on what was usually a close working relationship between two men, while characterizing David and Raneen’s relationship as at least reasonably compatible and effective, but other stories depict much more fraught relationships.
In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (2012), an Iraqi named Malik appears as a minor character early in the book. Powers’ narrator John Bartle tells us that Malik’s “English was exceptional… He’d been a student at the university before the war, studying literature.” He wears a hood and a mask because, he says, “’They’ll kill me for helping you. They’ll kill my whole family.’” A few pages Malik is killed by a sniper, and Bartle and his friend debate whether to include him in their morbid count toward 1000 Coalition Force casualties:
“Doesn’t count, does it?” Murph asked.
“No. I don’t think so.”
Bartle reports, “I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed.”
“Money is a Weapons System,” by Phil Klay, in his recently released collection Redeployment (2014) portrays “a short and pudgy Sunni Muslim” interpreter known as “the Professor.” Sullen and contemptuous, the Professor is “rumored to have blood on his hands from the Saddam days,” but Klay’s narrator, says, “Whether that was true or not, he was our best interpreter.” A short exchange reflects their tense relationship:
“Istalquaal,” I finally said, trying to draw him out. “Does it mean freedom, or liberation?”
[The Professor] opened his eyes a crack and looked at me sidelong. “Istalquaal? Istiqlal means independence. Istalquaal means nothing. It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.”
The most extensive portrait of an interpreter and the only one I know of published first in English that attempts to portray the interpreter’s thoughts and point of view is Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch (2012). In this novel, which is set in the southern, Pashtun-region of Afghanistan, a young ethnic Tajik interpreter named Masood, loyal to the Americans and eager to do well, is dropped off at a remote combat outpost in the middle of the night after the big battle. He doesn’t know about the battle, but expecting better he confronts hostility and mysterious behavior at every turn from his new American hosts and allies. Roy-Bhattacharya gets right the incredibly uneven regard of young American soldiers for those outside the fraternal ranks of their unit. Masood is mystified and hurt by the Americans’ baffling rudeness, and yet it is more complex than that—just when he is ready to write off the Americans as barbarians, he meets a medic who knows more about Afghan literature and history than he does, then the warm and wise COP first sergeant, and finally the outpost commander, whose fanatical adherence to mission and security coincides with a more than passing fluency in Pashto and Dari.
The dramatic focus on interpreters and the soldier-interpreter relationship, to my mind, suggests several points:
The interpreter, not the host nation populace, was the “other” most often encountered by American soldiers, and the only one with whom he or she might bond. With emotional investment, however, comes gratitude, guilt, and feelings of loss after the relationship ends.
In life, the relationship between soldier and interpreter was often characterized by respect and mutual affection. In fiction, however, the relationship is mined for tension and drama. The interpreter, from the fiction author’s viewpoint, is part of the problem, and dysfunctional interpreter relationships symbolize the divide between Western military forces and the populaces they intend to help.
The interpreter himself, or herself, is a complex, in-between figure who must manage a thicket of complicated personal histories and commitments. In some ways they become “people without a country,” or a contemporary “tragic mulatto,” neither white nor dark and doomed to unhappiness and premature death.
Contemplation of the interpreter’s role help us understand the basic unreality and unknowability of the wars: mediated, filtered, coming to us second-hand via seriously invested witness-participants. The general situation short of combat was always linguistically, rhetorically, and even artistically arranged for us by translators about whom we knew little and did little to comprehend.
The only fiction I know of written by an Iraqi or Afghan that portrays interpreters is Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim’s story “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes,” from his recently published collection of translated short stories The Corpse Exhibition (2014). It is also the only tale that imagines a future existence for interpreters post-war and measures the long-term consequences of their involvement with Americans. Carlos Fuentes is the pseudonym of an Iraqi named Salim Abdul Husain who has emigrated to Holland; he has taken the name because he reports that his own name makes him a marked man in the eyes of those who won’t forgive him for working as a translator for American forces. Carlos Fuentes has seen nothing but violence and injustice in Iraq, and in Holland he becomes a model citizen, fully embracing European values and habits while scorning immigrants who don’t. Blasim’s narrator states:
“Why are the trees so green and beautiful, as though they are washed by water every day? Why can’t we be peaceful like them? We live in houses like pigsties while their houses are warm, safe, and colorful. Why do they respect dogs as humans? …. How can we get a decent government like theirs?” Everything Carlos Fuentes saw amazed him and humiliated him at the same time, from the softness of the toilet paper in Holland to the parliament building protected only by security cameras.
All goes well for Carlos Fuentes until he begins having nightmares about his past life. He takes extremely fantastic measures to avoid the nightmares—“One night he painted his face like an American Indian, slept wearing diaphanous orange pajamas, and put under his pillow three feathers taken from various birds”–and yet nothing works. At tale’s end he is confronted in a dream by Salim Abdul Husain, his old self:
Salim was standing naked next to the window holding a broom stained with blood…. Salim began to smile and repeated in derision, “Salim the Dutchman, Salim the Mexican, Salim the Iraqi, Salim the Frenchman, Salim the Indian, Salim the Pakistani, Salim the Nigerian….”
The Carlos Fuentes character takes aim at Salim with a rifle, Salim jumps out the window, and the narrator tells us that Carlos Fuentes’s wife finds him dead on the pavement below in the morning. In a final indignity, Carlos Fuentes’ death is reported in the papers as that of an “Iraqi man” rather than a “Dutch national,” and his brothers have his body taken back to Iraq for burial. No one it seems has been much convinced by his effort to renounce his past.
Interpreting the interpreter, we can surmise that Carlos Fuentes’ divided self and attempted cultural makeover does not hold. The war has traumatized him beyond his knowing and his idealization of the West a dream not meant for him to possess. But it’s not just about what happens to him while working alongside American and European forces in country, or that his attempt to adopt and internalize Western values and beliefs have instead generated pathological self-hatred and destructiveness. It’s about the lived life of immigrants after the personal relationship ends, the Americans go home, and the rest of the interpreter’s life begins. Blasim’s story, and all stories about interpreters, remind us that real linguists exist by the 1000s in both Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere, and letting them fend for themselves now that we are gone is one more of the ways we fought the wars very callously and in ways that kept us from being as successful as possible.
Most of this post was first presented at the recent American Comparative Literature Conference in New York City. Thanks to panel organizer Susan Derwin for inviting me to speak. Thanks to fellow panelist Brian Williams, who reminded me of the presence of the interpreter Malik in The Yellow Birds. The paper as delivered at ACLA did not reference The Yellow Birds. I am invested in this subject because of my own positive experience with two interpreters in Afghanistan who are now in the United States, enlisted in the US Army, and who hope to become US citizens. I am actively engaged in trying to help a third trusted interpreter emigrate to the US. Paul Solotaroff describes the difficulty interpreters have in obtaining visas in “The Interpreters We Left Behind,” published this week in Men’s Journal.